Who is Robert de la Salle?

Around 1873 Robert Cavalier de la Salle, a young Frenchman who had been educated for the priesthood in a Jesuit seminary, but who preferred a secular life, was seated at the foot of Lake Ontario, and was enjoying a monopoly of the fur trade with the Five Nations south of the lake. He had built a fort on the site of modern Kingston and named it Frontenac, in honor of his patron. The mild Franciscans, who were now tolerated in Canada, were carrying on their religious work among the Indians under the favor of La Salle.

The enterprising young Frenchman had been stirred by accounts of the Spanish voyages to America, and especially by the adventures of De Soto, and the events attending his discovery of the Mississippi River in the warmer regions of the continent. His ambition was influenced by the story of Marquette's voyage on that stream so mighty in the higher latitudes, with a desire to become a pioneer in those far-off regions and perfect the explorations of the "Great Water." He had heard, also, of the Ohio River, and the beauty and wealth of the country through which it flowed; and he resolved to attempt the establishment of a widely-extended commerce with the natives there, and, if possible, plant colonies in the vast wilderness. With these aspirations he went to France, and there found favor with Colbert, the famous minister of Louis the Fourteenth.

The sagacity of Colbert comprehended the possibilities of La Salle's scheme, and he induced the king to extend La Salle's monopoly of the fur trade among the Indians, and to give him a commission to perfect the explorations of the Mississippi River. With some mechanics and others, and Tonti, an Italian, as his lieutenant, La Salle returned to Fort Frontenac late in 1678. With these, and Franciscan priests, in a great canoe, they crossed Lake Ontario and went up the Niagara River to the site of Lewiston. In that region a trading-house was established; and at near the site of Buffalo, above the cataract, they built a sailing vessel in which they crossed the lakes to Mackinack, and pushing forward, anchored in Green Bay, west of Lake Michigan. From Mackinack or Mackinaw, La Salle sent back his brig laden with a rich cargo of furs, and awaited her return. He tarried impatiently among the Miamies at Chicago, for some time, when with Tonti, Father Hennepin and two other Franciscans, and about thirty followers, he boldly penetrated the wilderness westward on foot and in canoes, until he reached Lake Peoria, in Illinois. There he built a fort, and sent Father Hennepin forward to explore the Upper Mississippi, while he returned to Frontenac to look after his property.

Hennepin, with two oarsmen, went down the Illinois River to the "Great Water," which they reached late in March. When the floating ice in the Mississippi had passed by, he invoked the aid of St. Anthony of Padua, and ascended the stream to the great falls which bear the name of his patron saint. Hennepin was a man much given to romancing, and permitting the creations of imagination to be represented as realities. He claimed to have discovered the source of the Mississippi, when it is known that he never went above the Falls of St. Anthony. These he described with tolerable accuracy, and near them he carved a cross and the arms of France upon the forest trees. In the autumn of 1680 he returned to Green Bay by the way of the Wisconsin and Fox rivers. In the meantime Tonti had been driven out of Illinois by the Indians, and had taken refuge among the barbarians on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

La Salle returned to the Illinois country with men and supplies for an exploration of the Mississippi. That enterprise was undertaken early in 1682. La Salle was accompanied by twenty-three Frenchmen, and eighteen New England Indians with ten women and three children. They reached the Mississippi in February, and embarked upon its bosom in a strong and spacious barge which had been constructed, and his people followed in canoes. They descended the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, everywhere observing the evidences of unbounded wealth in the bosom of the soil along its course. They stopped at many places and held intercourse with the natives, who came to the river banks in large numbers to meet them. At one place below the mouth of the Arkansas River, they found a powerful king over many tribes, to whom La Salle sent presents. His embassadors were received with great respect, and the monarch sent word by them that he should visit their chief in person. He came in great state. He was preceded by two horses, and by a master of ceremonies with six men, who cleared the ground over which his majesty was to pass, and erected a pavilion of mats to shield the king from the sun. The monarch was dressed in a white robe falling to his knee, that had been beautifully woven of the inner bark of trees. He was on foot, and was preceded by two men bearing immense feather fans as white as snow. A third carried plates of copper highly polished. With grave demeanor and gracious words, he held an interview with La Salle, and they parted with mutual assurances of friendship. The people over whom the king ruled were a part of those barbarians of the Gulf region who worshipped the sun. They were called Taenses.

La Salle proceeded southward, planted a cross and the arms of France on the borders of the Gulf of Mexico, and proclaimed that the whole Mississippi Valley was a part of the dominions of King Louis. He named the magnificent domain Louisiana in honor of that monarch, who was then at the height of his power. So was planted in the heart of our continent the germ of the French empire that grew up there early in the eighteenth century.

Having performed this great service, La Salle went back to Quebec, and thence hastened to France and laid a report of his great discovery before the delighted court. Colbert was dead, but his son was in power and inherited his father's genius and enterprise. He procured for La Salle the king's commission to colonize Louisiana. With four ships and almost three hundred emigrants, La Salle sailed from Rochelle late in July, 1684, for the Mississippi River by way of St. Domingo. His company was composed of one hundred soldiers, and the remainder (one hundred and eighty souls) were chiefly artisans and farmers, with a few young women. Unfortunately Beaujeu, the commander of the ships, was cold and proud. He could not comprehend the lofty purposes of La Salle, and often thwarted them in a degree. His pride would not allow him to listen to La Salle, and caused him to miss the mouths of the Mississippi while sailing westward over the Gulf of Mexico. They soon found themselves in Matagorda Bay, on the coasts of Texas, and there La Salle determined to disembark. His storeship was wrecked at the entrance to the bay, and its precious cargo was scattered over the bosom of the sea by a gale that arose in the evening. Despondency seized a part of the company, and they returned to the vessels. The remainder adhered to La Salle. The ships with the timid ones sailed away to France, leaving two hundred and thirty emigrants on the beach. These, with La Salle for the architect, soon constructed a fort on a stream that flowed into the western part of Matagorda Bay, and called it Fort St. Louis. This was the beginning of the settlement of Texas, and so it was made a portion of Louisiana. France took possession of the domain, and caused the arms of the kingdom to be carved on the great trees of the forest there.

La Salle now proposed to seek the Mississippi. In December, 1685, he departed, with some of his men. They forded small streams, crossed the larger ones on rafts which they constructed, and encountered many fearful perils. One man was eaten up by alligators. The bite of a rattlesnake killed another. Some of the Indians were hostile. Discontent arose in the party and some of the men deserted. La Salle had penetrated almost to the Red River, when his necessities compelled him to retrace his steps. When he reached the fort he had a dozen men less than when he departed.

La Salle was now allured in another direction by stories concerning rich mines in New Mexico. With a few followers he started in search of the treasures. He found a country wealthy in fertile soils, but not in precious metals; and he returned to the fort disappointed. That was in the spring of 1686.

La Salle now determined to go to Canada for reinforcements and supplies for his colony in Louisiana. Leaving a garrison at Fort St. Louis, he departed with sixteen men and five wild horses which he had procured in New Mexico. They had crossed Texas to the uplands of Trinity River, when some of the men became mutinous. Two of them, who had embarked all their fortunes in the enterprise, and who blamed La Salle for their losses, conspired against his life. One of them, named Duhaut, invited one of La Salle's nephews (who was of the party) to go with him on a buffalo hunt. Duhaut quarrelled with the young man, and murdered him. The leader, ignorant of the cause of his nephew's absence, went in search of him, and found the two conspirators near the brink of the river. Duhaut hid in the grass, but his companion approached La Salle with apparent friendliness. "Where is my nephew?" inquired the leader. He was answered by a musket-ball from the skulking Duhaut, and fell dead. Then the conspirators plundered his body, and left it to be devoured by eagles and wolves. Joutel (a friend of La Salle), and two of the great leader's kinsmen, escaped, made their way to the Mississippi, and returned to Canada with the sad tidings of the explorer's death.

Upon the death of Robert de la Salle around 1686, the French had traversed the interior of America from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia by way of the St. Lawrence, the chain of the great lakes and the Mississippi River, to the Gulf of Mexico, and asserted the authority of King Louis everywhere. Trading-posts, mission-stations, and colonies followed in the path of the explorers. New Orleans was founded early in the eighteenth century. Other places were settled on the Mississippi, the Illinois, and the lakes. At the middle of the last century, the French claimed dominion over the whole continent north of the Spanish possessions, excepting the narrow border of territory on the sea-coasts occupied by the English. They coveted the whole country, and resolved to possess it. Their alliance with the Indians, through the influence of the Jesuits, had that permanent object in view; and we have seen how fearfully those allies worked along the frontier settlements of New England, with torch and hatchet, to accomplish that end. Had they succeeded in their attempted conquest of New England, the Iroquois Confederacy, that stood like a wall of defence for the settlers in New York and Pennsylvania, might have been swept away, and the day-dreams of Louis the Fourteenth, that he was to become sole master of North America, been realized. The struggle for that mastery continued forty-five years after his death, and was ended only when the English had destroyed French dominion in America, by force of arms, and by conquest stripped France of a great portion of its claimed territory in our country.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I